On Monday morning, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was asked about the report that North Korea had billed the United States $2 million for the hospitalization of American student Otto Warmbier. If it was true, did the Trump administration actually agree to pay it?
“At no time in this administration have we paid for any hostages to be released, and we have no intention of doing so,” Pompeo said, while at an event at the Council on Foreign Relations. He somehow neither confirmed that the bill was issued, nor denied that an agreement was made.
According to a Washington Post report last week, North Korea had classified the bill as a reimbursement for Warmbier’s medical care, and President Donald Trump had reportedly signed an agreement at the time of Warmbier’s release to pay Pyongyang the money. The 22-year-old was taken into custody in January 2016 while on a tourist trip to North Korea, and in June 2017 was released to his parents in a horrific state. He died within a week of returning to the United States.
When contacted by the Post about the agreement, the State Department said that it would not comment on hostage situations. The White House also declined to comment: “We do not comment on hostage negotiations, which is why they have been so successful during this administration,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told the Post.
But on Friday, after the agreement became public, Trump tweeted about it. “No money was paid to North Korea for Otto Warmbier, not two Million Dollars, not anything else,” said the president on Twitter.
The president called The Washington Post report on the agreement “fake news” before quoting an anonymous source (something he excoriates news outlets for doing) allegedly calling him “the greatest hostage negotiator… in the history of the United States”:
“President Donald J. Trump is the greatest hostage negotiator that I know of in the history of the United States. 20 hostages, many in impossible circumstances, have been released in last two years. No money was paid.” Cheif Hostage Negotiator, USA!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 26, 2019
But two days later, his national security advisor, John Bolton, confirmed the report.
Speaking on Fox News Sunday, Bolton contradicted the president, saying that he was “told” that an agreement was, in fact, made via a “U.S. representative.” (Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun was not yet in the job, so it’s not clear who would have made the arrangements.)
This both contradicted the president’s denial and upended White House and State Department’s claims that the administration does not comment on hostage cases.
Setting aside the fact that Warmbier was not technically a hostage (and technicalities do matter), as he was detained (however unfairly) by a government, the fact that the president agreed to pay North Korea and then renege might prove to be problematic in other situations.
There are an unknown number of American citizens being held in countries. Some are prisoners in countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, while others are held hostage by extremist groups. The fate of others remain unknown, such as journalist Austin Tice, who went missing in Syria in August 2012.
If an administration is seen making disingenuous promises in exchange for a person’s freedom — be it money, prisoner exchanges, or other concessions — how will that affect the odds of those prisoners or hostages being released?
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is in the midst of a very contentious and uncertain set of negotiations with North Korea over the country’s nuclear and ballistic missiles.
With the February summit in Hanoi ending disastrously early with zero agreements in place, North Korea has been very publicly pivoting towards U.S. adversaries China and Russia.
When asked on Monday if there would be a third summit with North Korea by the summer, Pomepo, said, “Ah, I don’t know,” before saying progress has been made. After the second summit, Trump faced harsh criticism for saying that he he believed that Warmbier was detained without the knowledge of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
“He tells me that he didn’t know about it, and I will take him at his word,” said the president, who in 2017 said that the college student was “tortured beyond belief by North Korea.”